A Few Dirty Jokes

30 April 2013

I caught up with a fellow student the other day for coffee. I asked her how her part time job was going. Nonchalant, she replied that she was unemployed, and that it was nice to have more time on her hands since leaving her job as a waitress in a small, but well-known restaurant. When I asked why she had resigned, her tone changed. Blinking with embarrassment and staring at her coffee cup, her voice lowered. She’d left her job in order to maintain a semblance of dignity after refusing the sexual advances of a senior co-worker. She finished with, “Please don’t mention this to anyone.”

Unfortunately, her situation is not unusual for working women of all ages. Female employees often find themselves in a predicament where they are alienated by their peers at work in the wake of experiencing inappropriate sexual behaviour. Resignation is perceived to be a better option than dismissal, demotion or ostracisation.

Tania, 22, is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and former employee of a small produce company in the eastern suburbs. She describes the daunting catch-22 that so many women face. “You can’t let it continue, but you feel like if you say something people won’t believe you. They make life hard for you and accuse you of being full of yourself.”

“I had a much older co-worker who would text me constantly about how ‘hot’ I was,” Tania says. “He would do it in person as well. I was a little creeped out after a while and told him he was getting overbearing. He said that I had ‘broken something special’ between the two of us. Apparently, his intentions had been completely innocent and pure. I felt awful and guilty an didn’t bring it up again.”

Tania was initially unable to pinpoint precisely what was wrong with her co-worker’s behaviour and was reluctant to draw attention to the matter. “If I ever expressed my concerns to anyone, I was met by criticism,” she revealed. “I ‘read into things too much,’ and I’d be ‘crazy’ not to go there.”

However, the comments and text messages did not cease. Becoming fed up and telling her co-worker to stop, Tania claims other members of staff then bullied her. She was excluded from conversations, ignored and criticised as an over-thinker. Her working hours were cut without explanation, from fourteen weekly hours to ten. After continuing her employment for six months with no improvement, she resigned.

In a world where excessive political correctness is identified as problematic, sexual harassment struggles to assert itself as a legitimate workplace concern. Taking offence at sexual behaviour that falls short of assault or rape is dismissed, or viewed as contributing to a drab and overcautious workplace culture. Privately, however, Australian women disagree. A 2012 national telephone survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission reveals that one quarter of all women claim to have been sexually harassed at work in the last five years. A staggering 80 percent of them did not make a formal complaint to their employer to correct the problem, and 67 percent dd not seek any kind of support or advice at all. Well-intended campaigns and news features that urge employees to speak up against sexual harassment are useless. They are conceived with large corporations and human resources departments in mind. Meanwhile, those who have the misfortune to work in smaller industries, without the luxury of a friendly and conscientious HR officer, must contend with feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness. Lodging a formal complaint against inappropriate sexual behaviour will likely go nowhere. Of the number of women who reported sexual harassment in the workplace, less than half claimed that it ceased after lodging a complain. Worse, nearly one third of them reported negative consequences such as dismissal as a direct result of it. Disturbingly, the survey indicates that resignation may be been a prudent choice in the lieu of seeking help at work.

The current workplace trend silently condones sexist behaviour while heaping suspicion and blame on whistle-blowers and victims, The latter are targeted indirectly and whispered about behind closed doors and office partitions. They are incessantly told to ‘lighten up’, and written off a delusional narcissists. Alana, 23, a former legal secretary at a private inner-city law firm, claims her work was subject to unfair standards after she reported sexual harassment from a senior partner last year.

“They started looking for things to pick on,” she said. “Every time I printed a letter I had to race to the printer to get it in case a co-worker got there first and decided there was something wrong with it. It got so bad that I would sit and waste minutes at a time, agonising over whether or not to print a document and wishing I’d never said anything.”

Under the current climate, uttering the term ‘sexual harassment’ in any workplace is guaranteed to invoke confusion and outrage. Awareness is limited. Perpetrators take offence when their self-proclaimed ‘amusing’ comment or ‘flirtatious’ remark is grouped in the same category as an obscene request for coitus or indecent exposure. Understanding of the problem is inconsistent and overwhelming pressure is placed on the victim to prove they have been subject to discrimination. The taboo that currently surrounds workplace sexual harassment acts as a curse, shrouded in mystery and making pariahs of those who attempt to speak about it. What is required is a government-subsidised ad campaign specifically targeted at small businesses that outlines the proper definition of sexual harassment. Recognition of it should be based on the idea that sexually inappropriate workplace behaviour is any and all unwanted sexual behaviour, irrespective of whether it’s intended to be humorous or not. That includes sexualised comments about a person’s appearance, or repeated requests to go out on dates. Call me drab and overcautious is you want, but why should we throw away gender equality for the sake of a few dirty jokes?

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